Colorectal cancer. The phrase can be fear-inducing, and for good reason: Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death in the United States. Fortunately, most of us can prevent colorectal cancer with a healthy lifestyle and a quick exam: the colonoscopy (or another exam that your health care provider recommends).
Screening is a powerful weapon in the war against cancer. This is especially true with colorectal cancer because a colonoscopy can detect polyps or cancer early, making the disease preventable or more treatable.
There are a lot of myths about colorectal cancer and colonoscopies that may be stopping you from talking to your health care provider or scheduling a screening. Today, we’re going to bust those myths and give you the facts.
Myth 1: I don’t need to be screened because colorectal cancer doesn’t run in my family.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most colorectal cancer is caused by behavioral risk factors such as being physically inactive or overweight. However, there are certain rare types of colorectal cancer that occur at an earlier age and are considered to be hereditary. People with a family history of colorectal cancer are considered to have an increased risk for the disease, and health care providers help those patients determine when to begin screenings and what type to have. (The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that most adults be screened from age 50 until age 75.)
Myth 2: Colorectal cancer cannot be prevented, so I don’t need a colonoscopy.
It’s true that factors you can’t control may increase your chances of developing colorectal cancer, such as your age, history of cancer or polyps, family history, or race. But there are many factors that you can control. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of developing colorectal cancer for both men and women, as does physical inactivity. Certain diets — such as those full of red meat — can increase your chances of developing the disease. And smoking and heavy alcohol use have both been linked to an increased risk for colorectal cancer and death.
Myth 3: I have no symptoms of colorectal cancer, so I don’t need a colonoscopy.
Screening tests are important because they can detect cancer in its early stages. Colorectal cancer usually develops from precancerous polyps, and there often aren’t any symptoms. A colonoscopy will reveal the polyps and they can then be removed. Many other screening options are available, depending on your risk, and your health care provider can help you choose the one that’s best for you.
Myth 4: The risk of complications outweighs the benefits.
There is a small chance that you may experience complications during a colonoscopy. According to the USPSTF, the risks are minor and the rate of serious adverse events from colorectal cancer screenings increases with age. The most common risk is that the scope or tool may tear the lining of the colon or cause bleeding. It’s important to talk to your health care provider about any problems you have after the screening.
According to the CDC, there is no single “best test” for any person. Each test has advantages and disadvantages, so you should talk to your health care provider about what would be best for you and how often to get tested.
Myth 5: Colorectal cancer is an “older person” cancer, so I don’t need to be screened right now.
When it comes to colorectal cancer, age does matter. According to the USPSTF, most colorectal cancers are found in people who are 50 and older. That’s why screening is recommended from age 50 to 74. Younger people may be at an increased risk because of their family history or other factors. If that applies to you, you should talk to your health care provider about being screened.
Colorectal cancer is one of few cancers that can be prevented through testing, so being screened is important. When they are detected early, small growths that might have become cancerous can be removed. If you are of appropriate age, a quick screening could give you piece of mind or even save your life.
American Cancer Society. Colorectal Cancer Risk Factors. Retrieved from: www.cancer.org/cancer/colon-rectal-cancer/causes-risks-prevention/risk-factors.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Colorectal Cancer Awareness. Retrieved from: www.cdc.gov/genomics/resources/diseases/colorectal.htm
Combined impact of healthy lifestyle factors on colorectal cancer: a large European cohort study. Retrieved from: https://bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12916-014-0168-4
National Cancer Institute: Colorectal Cancer—Patient Version. Retrieved from: www.cancer.gov/types/colorectal
UPMC. Colonoscopy. Retrieved from: www.upmc.com/health-library/Pages/HealthwiseIndex.aspx?qid=hw209694
UPMC MyHealth Matters Blog: Prevent Colorectal Cancer. Retrieved from: www.upmcmyhealthmatters.com/5-healthy-habits-to-help-prevent-colon-cancer/
UPMC MyHealth Matters Blog: Colorectal cancer: 5 common questions. Retrieved from: www.upmcmyhealthmatters.com/colorectal-cancer-5-common-questions/
UPMC MyHealth Matters Blog: Tests to detect colorectal cancer and polyps. Retrieved from: www.upmcmyhealthmatters.com/tests-detect-colorectal-cancer-polyps/
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Colorectal Cancer. Retrieved from: https://report.nih.gov/NIHfactsheets/ViewFactSheet.aspx?csid=84
U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Colorectal cancer: Screening. Retrieved from: www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/Page/Document/UpdateSummaryFinal/colorectal-cancer-screening2